BACK to Home Page  Workshop: Orality and Literacy in African Societies

Phillip Mazambara
Missionsakademie a.d. Uni Hamburg
Rupertistr. 67
22609 Hamburg


(a brief contribution from a Zimbabwean theologician)

My paper is in four parts. The first is a statement of personal confession to the problem of repeating morally prejudiced statements. The second is on the response of African Christian converts which was more or less directly spurred by Dr Kamphausen's presentation. The third are statements from my observations in oral tradition of the Shona in Zimbabwe. The last is a focus on theologians and oral & literal texts.


When Dr Kamphausen informed me and extended the invitation from the department of History from Prof. Leonhard Harding to this workshop I had interest in it and expected to be a participant and not a reporter. Three days before the workshop Dr. Kamphausen asked me to say a few statements as a continuation of, or a response to his paper. Before I come to that please allow me to share with you a personal confession and position concerning the repetition of offending statements from one group about another.

The repetition of prejudiced statements from one group about the other is a psychological burden to everybody related in one way or another to the issuer of the statement. It leads one to question oneself the following: "Is that meant that since I am of the same nationality, race or association, the statement is meant to remind me of my co-operate wrong in it?"

It is the same for the one who identifies themselves with the then offended person or society. The freshness of its offensiveness can in fact be greater than in the past. I realised this as I had to attend many seminars where such statements are repeated. The statements made us as African participants feel tired and the next night would be bad Everybody concerned is led to reflect on the present state and the result is that quoting these statements deepens schisms between participants who were otherwise drawing closer to each other. I also noticed that this is a universal problem because Europeans do not quote prejudiced statements about each other in a seminar such statements may be said.

Therefore, if being academic needs us to repeat such statements, a way of doing it must be developed and used. The interest and objective, which are very important part of all studies, must be stated sincerely. Unfortunately, academic work does not methodologically demand it. Only the immediate aim is necessarily to be stated, resulting in the poet's remark that academic research can be "mere skill" and "little gain". In fact interest, bias and perspectives may be hidden under the jacket of being "objective", "distanced" and "sympathetic". In the name of science we may perpetuate the agony that prejudice does in our lives.

In Shona (Zimbabwean) culture, the person who repeats what has been gossiped by a third person may be understood to be taking the opportunity to hurt you or use you by creating friendship based on estranging you from the third person. One must therefore not expect to know what others gossip about them from a friend. The best a friend may do is to challenge the gossip in the absence of the "victim" who is not yet directly hurt by it since he/she does not know it. If it is clear or obvious that the statement is bad, the one who repeats it is accountable.

I could say all I am going to say without referring to the quoted statements from famous German mission historians. It is methodologically problematic for Africans to express their own self-interpretations by way of directly confronting European interpretations of Africans. Neutrality which is a must for learning together can not be there for every participant would be polarised. I would say it is not the business of Africans to rehearse these statements. Theirs is to build and interpret their own self-understanding and history with the methods they see appropriate. The method in itself may be neutral, but the choice of the method is not obviously neutral, be it from an insider or an outsider. Ideology, interest, objective and perspective play the decisive role in the choice of the method. These four aspects are often not expressed. Africans may need to challenge current interpretations which might be published or publicly said and not those which are said to be of the past.


Africans responded to Christianity as more of subjects than objects. Facts to this were clear from the beginning of Christianity but because of Western perspective on Africans' competence to be critical, the facts could not impress anything on most of the missionaries to suspect their views.

The first attempt at Christianising the Shona was in the later half of the 16th century by the Portuguese Jesuit Gonšalo da Silveira. The land of the Shona, presently Zimbabwe, was under the Munhumutapa Empire/Dynasty. Da Silveira got the king and many to be baptised by claiming that through baptism they would understand foreign language. The mission of da Silveira was ended quickly because he was murdered. Some European historians (for example Astrid Sauerwein: 1990, Mission und Kolonialism in Simbabwe 1840-1940) interpret the decision of Munhumutapa's advisers to murder da Silveira as aconflict between Muslims and Christians.

Arabs were long before in the area as they traded with Africans. The perspective behind setting the conflict between Christianity and Islam underplays the consciousness among Africans of the danger of Christianity to African culture. African historians on the other hand (Mudenge for example) ascribe the action of the king to have been influenced by his dare or counsellors and spirit mediums. Fifty years later the Portuguese missionaries tried to carry on their endeavours but without success and in 1759 the attempts were given up.

The next appearance of Western missionaries was a 100 years later. Robert Moffat of the London Missionary Society established a missionary station at Kurumani in present Botswana. Mzilikazi, the migrant king of the Ndebele from Zulu land in South Africa had heard about the excellent results of agricultural methods of the missionary. So Mzilikazi sent messengers in 1829 to Kurumani to be informed about the methods. This action is a reflection of the openness of African tradition that when they hear that there is some one, stranger or distant, who had knowledge of something that made life better or easier, they would undertake the bother to have the knowledge.

Through this contact Moffat went into Matebeleland and had a chance to introduce Christianity to Mzilikazi. Mzilikazi, and his outspokenly intelligent successor son Lobengula and many other African kings and sub-kings posed to Moffat and other missionaries theological questions about Christianity, e.g. how resurrection of rotten, eaten and scattered bodies would come together again, how Christianity was really a better religion than traditional religion, how one religion had two religions in conflict, i.e., Catholic and Protestant, how Catholic missionaries did "not believe in wives and mothers" and many others which missionaries could not explain satisfactorily. Lobengula and other kings ordered that missionaries would be allowed to teach agriculture and other arts but not religion because missionaries had proved incompetent to explain their Christian religious beliefs, teachings and differences. There was no contact with Arabs noted in this period.

In the years 1880-1890, through false treaties Cicil John Rhodes' British South Africa Company took over the political reigns and decidedly silenced the Ndebele and Shona political dominance in the Ndebele-English and Shona-English Wars called in Shona the First Chimurenga Wars for Independence. The leading spirit mediums, woman Mbuya Nehanda and man Sekuru Kaguvi were executed.

Only after silencing Africans politically did missionary work then began to have some "explosive" response it is known to have from Africans. This is easy to explain. Among the new masters; colonialists, searchers of riches and missionaries, it was the missionaries who had an interest in Africans as humans at least as objects for religious expansion. It was with the missionaries that Africans could be at least something. And it is also through missionaries that all the elite and political leaders of Zimbabwe and other African countries became skilled to handle Westerners in the established Western economy. One can ask then if the boom of Christianity after colonisation speaks for the religion of Christianity as credibly a universal religion or as one that wins its converts only when the converts are firstly dispossessed and made desolates.

To Western missionaries' urgent program aimed at uprooting African religious traditions at least two main responses can be clearly outlined: act "conveniently" to the European missionary and reform the Christianity.


The first group developed a strategy we may say has the following guideline: Do not tell the missionary or whites what you do which Europeans regard as heathen. This group of converts continued to keep their amulets to do with magical security and assurance of success, and to participate in their family gatherings, rituals and celebrations to do with fellowship with ancestors. (Notice that I say "fellowship with ancestors" in stead of ancestor worship because what happens, at least the Shona do it, can never be called worshipping or praising ancestors. Strictly speaking worship and praise is to human beings one sings songs or poems of praise when they have done something little or marvellously praiseworthy.) The two aspects of Shona religious practices, fellowship with ancestors and magic to ensure security and success are the decisive marks of being a traditionalist in as far as religion is concerned. Traditional religion is not exclusive. One may believe other religious teachings but remains a traditionalist if one practices especially the family fellowship where ancestors are also addressed.

Both the two aspects are private and individual matters. The family fellowship that includes addressing ancestors is a family affair. The in-laws are outsiders. Thus for example my wife can be part of the ritual celebration both of my family and of her family. But I can not be part of the fellowship with her family. Magic for security and assurance of prosperity is an individual's private thing which may be secret even to one's next of kin. Thus, in the light of modern culture coupled by the fact that missionaries were outsiders, Africans could, from then till now, continue to have the double membership in religion. Missionaries' demand in rejecting many cultural values and religious practices that answer existential questions was the greatest factor in making Africans believe that Europeans do not believe the truth. Hence the development of a colonial culture of lying to the masters that made African be branded as liars by nature. Any statistics, then and now, which distinguishes Christians from traditionalists is futile. Helpful might be statistic of those who confess to be Christians and those who categorically say they are not Christians. As far as being a traditionalist is concerned, one is likely to miss the reality by the statistics they come up with. The question about one's relationship to one's relatives living and/or dead is getting too much into one's privacy even within traditional set up.


A second group of converts took up Christianity and set their hopes in it. They became so committed to it that they expected Christianity to replace African traditional spirituality. But Western missionaries could not replace the n'anga and the svikiro (diviner & spirit medium). N'anga and masvikiro were the spiritual experts and guardians of religion among the Shona. Nevertheless through a close look at the Bible, Africans noticed the great discrepancy between Western model of Christianity to that one envisages from reading the Bible which missionaries preached as the "Word of God". So they judged Western Christianity to be not true biblical Christianity but Western syncretism. The Bible points to the role of the Spirit of God and inspiration of prophets from the beginning to its end and promises more of inspiration from the Spirit never of being bound by written traditions again. So there arose African Instituted Churches of the Spirit among other various modes of adaptations of Christianity among African converts who left the churches founded by Western Missions.

The realisation that Western Christianity was a cultural achievement not to be universalised became a theme among Western theologians more than fifty years after Africans had rejected the imposition of Western Christianity on them on that basis. The appreciation of the fact that Western Christianity is syncretism in all its full (theologically negative) senses is not yet an obvious thing to many Western Christians.


I mention a few statements I gained during studies in Shona involving field research with the Department of African Languages at the University of Zimbabwe in 1986 and being a teacher of Shona in secondary schools.

Tales (Ngano)

Interesting about the folk tales (ngano) is that the storyteller (sarungano) must always announce their death at the end of the story. Behind this tradition is the understanding that the storyteller may not be brought to task about anything they have depicted in their story however imaginary or impossible it may be. So the story telling was an exercise not only of moral building and entertainment but of building up imagination powers. Each storyteller was free to be innovative in their own methods and models in telling tales and legends for entertainment an/or moral building. There was no question of plagiarism for every time a story is told, it was seen as new and as a creation of the current storyteller. It would be therefore very questionable to extrapolate elaborate beliefs and understanding of the Shona from the content of their folk tales.

Oral tradition

Oral tradition was the main source of keeping history. Hints to many historical things can be picked in praise songs which are related to the action and experiences of one's dead relatives. Maternal relation was sometimes also used to identify people because in polygamous society the identity of a person is full not only by name of father but also identification of the mother. So one may say, "grandchild of Zengwa" (muzukuru Zenzwa). That means the mother is a daughter of Zengwa. Before Westernisation paternal grandfathers were not called "grandfathers" (sekuru) but simply "father" (baba or especially in relation grandfather bambo or teteguru). His particular (nick-) name would be added when necessary for distinction. Some grandfathers are still yet offended to be addressed as "grandfathers" by children of their sons, but nevertheless the process of Westernisation through educational system is so deep rooted that the language can not be revived again.

Praise songs no longer belong to the younger generation not only because missionaries taught against it as it is real praise and worship, but also because nobody in modern economy can afford it. It takes a lot of time for it was done at least briefly at every point one would say, "Thank you" to a person one personally knows and elaborate only at times people would be resting. Each poem goes back to known genealogical parenthood of the person praised.

According to Shona oral tradition, the first division of families was founded when each of the then family heads had to chose a totem (what might be called a representative animal). Only this father ate the meat of the animal in a ritual covenant with the particular animal family and the rest of his offspring would not be allowed to eat the animal. Therefore genealogies of members of the same totem are believed to be dating back to the same founding father. Many praise songs of particular totems are being written down. Nevertheless there is a tendency to want them to be universal for all those of the totem. This pushes the writers to include only very old oral tradition of the ancestry the detail of which most members are now uninformed about. Older oral tradition is far more legendary/mythical in character than oral history. Otherwise in the Sitz im Leben a praise song was always sung to a particular person at a particular time. Thus, though the poems may now be written their life or importance in the praxis is lost or is sterile. The written universalised praise poems no longer give any individual person their own identity as a poem was meant to do.

Oral traditions in religious and magical practices

I was fascinated by the fact that most elders would not give any explanation other than the fact that the spirit medium (svikiro) or the diviner (n'anga) has advised them to do it the way they did it. This made me realise a fact that trying to extrapolate what Africans understand in their rituals and what the symbols mean may be a mere adventurous work. Decisive for Africans is that an expert (i.e. the n'anga or svikiro) has advised it. Thus, it is a question of belief and trust or transfer of responsibility to the expert. Requesting a n'anga or masvikiro to explain the rituals they advise people to perform is usually redundant. When one poses as a n'anga or svikiro, it means that their knowledge, which they might have been taught by someone, is already mystified. That is to say the answer given is that it is the spirit which "visits" the person and gives the instructions. The spirit is therefore the legitimation of the logic of the ritual. The "expert" also transfers the details and justifications to the spirit.

To mystify an art was, in my opinion, a sophisticated traditional way to safeguard ownership. In modern society individuals and companies do it through legislation. Everything special was understood to be because of a spirit that works it out through the person. Thus an exceptional hunter would be said to have a "spirit of hunting" (shavi rokuvhima) just as a witch (muroyi) had a spirit of witchcraft (shavi rouroyi) and a healer had a spirit of healing (shavi rokurapa) and a diviner had a spirit of spiritual diagnosis of problems and their secret human and spiritual causes and possible remedies had a shavi rokushopera (spirit of divination). (Mystifying exceptional talentedness helped to reduce jealousy and competition thereby building a harmonious society.

Four reasons can be advanced to argue for my thesis that spirit possession must also be understood as a necessitated mystical way of guarding "copyright". Firstly is the fact that the expert often told it to one person closely related or friendly to the person at the time when the expert thought he/she was towards the end of their life. Secondly is that the methods and herbs of different experts were/are comparable to each other if not similar. Thirdly is the fact that it is known that what a person does under "being visited" (Shona literal translation for kusvikirwa so-called "spirit possession") is something that they can do without being possessed.

Fourthly, family leaders do not take the advice of one diviner (n'anga) as final but after their own evaluation after visiting several n'anga from different regions. They travel long distances to different diviners. This shows a high degree of scrupulousness of Shona elders in the awareness that diviners, though being the experts err. Interestingly, after elders make their final decision of what they will take as the spiritual advice they will not tell how they have chosen that to be the one true. But one of the guiding principles is that the more a n'anga says rightly what clients already know to be true the more he/she wins the faith and trust of clients.

For the reason that elders finally choose which explanation from the n'anga they will take as the working one Shona tradition has hinted to this in a saying concerning the use of the pool of proverbs, sayings, metaphors, riddles which may be seen as the Shona wisdom texts. The phrase, "elders have said" (vakuru vakati) is almost always prefixed to the saying. The elders, and not the expert n'anga, svikiro and nor the thought-to-be influential ancestors, are the source of wisdom. When one insists on an explanation of many problems raised in experience concerning efficacy of traditional rituals and explanations the Shona wisdom pool has the answer, "Elders have said, 'Grow up and see it for yourself'" (Vakuru vakati, "Kura uone"). Thus we may say the Shona were already post modern in being relative to everything and every explanation.


Theologians do not take for granted the distinction between oral and literal text in as far as their historical value is concerned. Both oral and literal religious texts are fraught with the theology or ideology or perspective of the author of the text. The author of the text has something to preach which they aim to convince the target to accept as the norm. According to the author's theology then, the author describes past history in a way which makes the past tend to agree with one's theology. And equally true is that what the author maintains to be currently the way things are happening may in fact be the opposite of what is happening. It is a way of encouraging the reader to believe the author's theology. This is documented towards end of the Fourth Canonical Gospel (John 20:30-31),

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

In theological studies, we notice the point that literal tradition is difficult to contextualise because the literal text tends to be sacralized and universalized though the text depiction is in reality a theological reconstruction by a particular person in a particular context. This problem was already noted in the development of the Bible. The prophet Jeremiah condemned some earliest known versions of the "books of Moses" as lies (Jeremiah 8:8):

How can you (priests and aristocracy) say, "We are wise for we have the Law of the Lord," when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?

Earlier own another canonical prophet had challenged Israelites by telling them that they were not the only people led by Jahwe from one place to another through an exodus (Amos 9:7):

"Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites (i.e. Ethiopians/Africans)?" declares Yahweh. Did I not bring up Israel from Egypt, the Philistines from Camptor and the Arameans from Kir?

Such texts like the one in Amos quoted here give interesting hints to comparative studies of traditions. For example, in comparing migration stories of the Shona from oral tradition with the Israelite tradition gives, among others, the following points: The Shona were led by The Voice of Yahweh (Inzwi raMwari) from the original land (Tanganyika) with miracles of feeding just as in the Israelite exodus. After settling in modern Zimbabwe The Voice ceased to speak from the air but only through spirit mediums, (masvikiro/mhondoro) who correspond to Hebrew prophets. The Shona name for God (Mwari) means, as a contraction of Munhu ari, The-Human-Being-Who-Is which is comparable to the Hebrew Mosaic name Yahweh, The-One-Who-Is. Polytheism and idolatry in Shona religion is less traceable than it is in early Israelite religion. (Those who have said the Shona were polytheistic and idolatrous confused belief in the role of ancestors, spirits and magic to God and idol gods.) The Shona, from their religion, can rarely comprehend the later Roman-Greek Christian doctrine of Trinity (Three-Distinct-Persons-In-The-One-God-Belief) just as this Trinity doctrine remains strange for Jews then and now.

We notice in theological studies that each successive author prefers oral texts as the authority of their presentation because oral texts are malleable. So confessed the writer of the Third Canonical Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). In setting out the preaching of his theology or Christology to a named Theophilus Luke was critical of several Gospels already written and chose to write his own Gospel from the oral tradition that was maintained to go back to eye-witnesses. The difficulties in contextualising literal tradition was noted by Paul, the greatest of all the apostles, as he wrote to some of his important and action-packed assemblies (II Corinthians 3:3, 6):

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.…He (God) has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant-not of the letter but of the Spirit: for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.

Currently both Christian theologians in academic circles and the clergy in the churches battle with the need to reform their literal traditions which appear to be irrelevant to the current generations. Both theologians and the clergy know that it is not because the current generations are less religious than older generations that they do not seem to be interested any longer in churches. The problem is that the literal tradition has become so sacralized that changing it for it to be relevant to the current generations is difficult for both the clergy and theologians alike.

So states Graeme Murray in this month's issue of The New Zealand Christian, "the Church (which has been loved) had been nurtured but isn't working any more. Her way of doing things is less and less meaningful and satisfying to more and more of her people. That doesn't mean Christianity has had its day. Rather our institutional ways of expressing and bearing witness to our faith need radical revision."

These observations are equally true also for the more recent Christian churches like the African Instituted Churches (so-called independent). I give two examples from the (African) Apostolic Body in Christ in Zimbabwe on which I am writing a dissertation under the title, "A self-understanding of African Apostles with reference to the Apostolic Body in Christ in Zimbabwe". The founder John N'omberume of Marange founded the church on 12 July 1932 on the basis of being commissioned by Jesus in visions to build this church. Twenty years after the church has gathered almost all its characteristic model of ministry, church leadership, rules and regulations, the founder wrote a memoir of his visions and early beginnings of the church, Umboo Utsva hwaVapostori (New Evidence of Apostles). The content of what John wrote to have been said by Jesus in the inaugural vision of 12 July as to what constitutes apostleship is none of the things that distinguish this church from any other Christian church European and African alike. It is the same with his successor Obert Jese of Zaka who wrote the constitution, liturgy and leadership of the church, Mashoko oKuvamba kweUpostori muNyika yeAfrika (The Genesis of Apostleship in Afrika). What is written is the ideal of what the Church ought to be according to Obert's theological understanding. It is not a mere description of what happens in the church.

Secondly, the inaugural vision was on 12 July. This day was then instituted as the day for the most important largest gathering of the church where members celebrate Holy Communion. Members may celebrate Communion other days, but 12 July had to be seen as the most important memorial day where it would be best that every member who can may celebrate Communion. Five years later, regularly employed members requested that the day for the celebration be shifted to 17 July where there was always a public holiday, the then Rhodes and Founders Days. The founder, with the council of elders, decided to shift the day since the celebration was made for members and not for observing days. In writing the account of his visions 15 years later, John documented the changed date as the historical date of the vision. The Rhodes and Founders Public Holidays were then abolished already during the Settler Government of Ian Smith. Now to suggest that the church makes the celebration on Sundays about the 12th and 17th to enable as many as possible to attend is seen as being unfaithful to the tradition by many members. Yet historically, "tradition" is a tradition of change and not static procedures.

This sterility of written tradition suggests that literacy may be a spear and hindrance to new necessary and viable innovations. As theologians, we use historical methods very much but we realise that the literal text does not obviously tell history though it appears historical. Thus, knowing the theology, ideology, perspective, bias or purpose of the author is for theologians a must in academic scholarship to reconstruct history. Theologians therefore keep in close contact with historians' stools and criteria and also wonder how historians go about their historical studies in relation to the aspect of the theological/ideological purpose of the author which shames the form and expression of the literal text.

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